Film Island | 2010

Experimental Film: The Missing Frame | Gábor Gelencsér | essay | 2010 | English

Tibor Szemző’s Music Pictures
by Gábor Gelencsér

Exprerimental Film: The Missing Frame
Kansas City, Missouri

„With me the picture too is music,” Tibor Szemző declared in an interview”[1] –, while he has consistently referred to the music that he writes for films “sonic pictures”[2]. The synaesthetic position taken by the artist in emphasizing the musicality of his films and the pictoriality of his (film) music at one and the same time sets out a bridging path between the various media and genres and results in a dissociation from traditional modes of artistic expression (and, not least, from its exponents). Both the bridging and the insulation have demonstrable consequences for form and motif, the former in performance, the latter in the use of the motif of the island in its concrete and metaphorical senses.

For Szemző performance is not merely an artistic mode of expression that was bound to the turn of the 1970s into the 1980s, in which he himself played an active part at the time, but a theoretical and practical ground that shaped an entire stance and approach to performing. For one thing, performance provides an opportunity for drawing in “non-musical elements into events that run over time and are organized as music,”[3] and more specifically texts and images; for another, the combined and, within certain limits, aleatoric presence of multiple elements brings liveliness, unpredictability and surprise to the performance—the very aspects that Szemző strives to capture in those of his works, including the films, that are recorded definitively from the technical point of view. This aspect refers to what is a defining feature of his art, one beyond form, to the essential presence that is manifest in the subject and thought, to the performance as process, and finally to time as marked out, bounded and moulded by performance. A certain something, in other words, that is ever harder to pin down and, in parallel, ever more closely approaches the transcendental. Szemző’s choice of instrument is hardly accidental: the flute makes invisible-inaudible breathing visible and audible; and in the Hungarian language at least, breathing (lélegzés) is connected with the soul (lélek)…

From the island as a socially basic psychological position, the experience of confinedness and political isolation in Kádár-era Hungary grows in his art into a universal image without losing any of its concrete significance. Along with Pillanatkép a szigetről [Snapshot from the Island], the first album he recorded made under his own name, films have been the primary reason why this motif has assumed such a marked presence in Szemző’s oeuvre, whether this is a matter of real islands such as Cuba and Japan,[4] or neighbourhoods, like Budapest’s Eighth District, that have a life that is separated, insularly as it were, from the rest of a city, or spiritual islanders like a man carrying on a conversation with himself or the solitary wanderer Alexander Csoma de Körös.

The bridging and insulation are not purely artistic gestures and motifs for their own sake. Quite the opposite, there is constant tension between them. The antithetical and seemingly mutually exclusive polarities of movement and immobility, dialogue and monologue, community life and solitude make the hidden energy paths of the works definable and visible as a form-giving principle that is present with particular vividness in the films. It is no accident that the paradoxes that describe Szemző’s art most aptly relate to his work for the most part in films: “A motion picture of time standing still,” as József Tillmann escribed the visual world of Cuba[5] ; “we are on the way, but frequently on the way in static pictures,” András Forgách describes the kinetic track of Az élet vendége [A Guest of Life][6]

Here I shall assess the four short films that Szemző has made to date: Koponyaalapi törés [Skullbase Fracture] (Béla Balázs Studio, 1987, 20’, video); Cuba (Béla Balázs Studio, 1994, 32’, 8/16 mm); A túlpart [The Other Shore] (Béla Balázs Studio & Duna Műhely, 1998, 20’, 35 mm); Ez van! [What There Is] (Kép-Árnyék, 2005, 11’, 8 mm), as well as his first feature-length film, Az élet vendége—Csoma legendárium, [A Guest of Life – Alexander Csoma de Körös] (Mediawave 2000, 2006; 78’, 8/35 mm). Though not a specific aim, it is hoped that insofar as details are capable of illuminating the whole this examination of the films’ formal language will also throw light on the musical side of the artist’s output.

Film Clips

Tibor Szemző’s multimedia approach is grounded in the nascent neoavant-garde stream of Hungary’s artistic life of the Seventies. At that time this was allowed to express itself fairly freely in film as well as in music; indeed, film became a kind of meeting-ground for creative artists who were straining and seeking to step beyond the boundaries of their own media. From the mid-Seventies on, these endeavours acquired a workshop that had a special status. The Béla Balázs Studio (BBS) had been set up at the start of the Sixties as a debating circle and creative workshop for directors who had qualified at the Academy for Film Arts in Budapest. The short feature films and documentaries made under its aegis were not hobbled by the need to present them publicly, which gave them a high degree of freedom from the attentions of official censors, though by the same token this placed on them the threats of isolation and their films becoming “invisible”. The BBS itself became as island in Hungary’s film culture, with all the advantages and drawbacks that entailed. At all events, following the widespread disillusionment triggered by the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 and a spell of economic and political suppression in Hungary itself during 1972-73, the Studio turned into an increasingly important base for unconventional artists of an avant-garde disposition. This process was assisted by the way the balance of power altered within the Studio itself: instead of restricting access to directors who had qualified from the film school, the workshop also opened up its doors to creative artists in allied fields, or more specifically anyone who could convince the fixed-term members of the BBS’s democratically elected management board to back their film plan. The key figure and indeed prime mover in this shift of profile was Gábor Bódy, who had already been working at the Studio even before the establishment of the Academy for Film Arts, and continued to do so, though its biggest coup was undoubtedly the involvement of writer, poet, essayist, artist and performer Miklós Erdély. Not only would Erdély have had no chance of being offered the facilities to make films in the mainstream state studios, he positively eschewed the possibility of working in a “professional” environment because, as he once put it in an interview that outlined a programme that many found attractive: “…this is not my field of expertise, and that is why what I can do is to try out what it is possible to do with film. Questionable things. In other words, I always go for what is not certain.”[7] Erdély’s entire film output was linked to the Béla Balázs Studio. Apart from him, the only other person who gained regular access to facilities for producing films during this period was the artist Dóra Maurer, though single films did come from writer Péter Dobai (with Archaikus torzó [Archaic torso], 1971) and composer László Vidovszky (with Aldrin, 1976), while among others who did work there that were either subsequently banned from screening or halted while shooting was in progress were Tamás Szentjóby (Kentaur [Centaur], 1974), László Najmányi (A császár üzenete [The Emperor’s Message], 1975) and Tibor Hajas (Öndivatbemutató [Self-fashion Show], 1976).

With the emigration or death of many of the previous decade’s avant-garde artists, collaboration between film and allied arts, music above all, was given a fresh impetus in the mid-Eighties. This new sensitivity, as the trend was called, advocated liberation of the subjective being and setting the individual in a non-ideological, “history-free” foreground, and music was seen as the most appropriate sensory means of achieving that stripping.[8] The most important film that was spawned by the new direction was Gábor Bódy’s Kutya éji dala [A Dog’s Night Song], 1983) which featured two of Hungary’s most prominent underground bands (Bizottság [‘Committee’] and Vágtázó Halottkémek [‘Galloping Dead Spies’]), and it was in the BBS that András Wahorn’s Jégkrémbalett (Ice-Cream Ballet, 1984), an independently financed film which involved the members of Bizottság, all artists in their own right, in the leading roles and also a feature-length experimental film (Ex-kódex, 1983) by Péter Müller, who was perhaps best known as a musician.

From the early Eighties onwards, Tibor Szemző had several ties with the avant-garde circle around the BBS and, indeed, directly with the Studio itself. His first film score was for a structuralist piece by Miklós Erdély entitled Vonatút (Traintrip, 1981), and in the same year he premiered the music he had composed for Tibor Hajas’s A halál szexepilje (The Sex Appeal of Death) and in 1988 for a text by Erdély entitled Optimista előadás (Optimistic Lecture). As he grew further apart from ‘minimalist’ music performers of Group 180 with which he had been associated he gravitated to various other musicians, such as János Szirtes, who frequently appeared in films and made several appearances with Bizottság and with whom he formed a short-lived performance group called Új Modern Akrobatika (‘New Modern Acrobatics’). On the tours made by Group 180 he also came into close contact with Péter Forgács, who acted as narrator in various pieces that featured in their concerts and began writing “soundscapes” for the series of pictures that Forgács was starting to make under the collective title Privát Magyarország (Private Hungary), the first parts of which were produced in BBS. By then Szemző had already shot his own first film, SkullbaseFracture (1985) at the Studio, and his next two film works also were also made there with the assistance of György Durst, BBS’s director at that time, as producer.

This list of alliances, while far from complete, will serve to sketch out the artistic areas towards which Szemző was drawn and whose openness to performance-related creative work provided a model for his own endeavours. The likelihood that this would result in a film of his own was already tangible in the very air of the Eighties, and it did indeed come to pass, but this also closed the chapter of Szemző’s links with neoavant-garde film-making. Unlike others coming from allied branches of art who were keen on expressing themselves in film, the composer was already with his first film attesting a suspicion that he explicitly acknowledged somewhat later: “For what it is worth, I rather think that for me film is far removed as a means of expression.”[9] Film was therefore important to him primarily for its creative stance, a similar way of thinking (this equally signifies that from the Eighties on he was finding his intellectual allies less and less among his composer and musician peers), though neither avant-garde film nor film as an artistic form per se had an influence on him from a formal or aesthetic viewpoint.

As a result, Szemző’s characteristic music-pictorial standpoint is not yet in evidence in Skull-Base Fracture. This film is much more a document, or to be more accurate, a reconstruction  in form of what he himself defined as an “anti-video clip”[10] of a musical performance that first saw light under the same title within the ambit of his work with Group 180. It is nevertheless worth a closer look as it displays many typical features that were to re-appear later in different form.

The performance feeds off the tensions that arise from a variety of musical, conceptual and personal breaking-points (cf. the title), as different musical styles, trains of thought and persons converge, interpenetrate, then again diverge from one another. The video version does not alter any of the various strata—music, text, performer/situation—of the original performance, though it does enrich it with a few new strata or viewpoints.

At the musical level an encounter is staged of two melodic worlds associated with radically different traditions and status (i.e. representing divergent tastes and values): a Hungarian popular song as performed by a Gypsy band and one of Szemző’s own compositions. The text (by Pavel Havliček) piles bits of text that have various connotations—now scientific, then philosophical, then again historical and yet again political—but no fundamental coherence. Finally, the identity of the male performer who delivers the text also splits in two as, while eating dinner in a restaurant, he gets involved in an argument with his (former?) self as he appears on a television screen. (This latter effect is greatly enhanced by the physical appearance of the main performer, Pál Hont, which is the most critical element in the whole performance, dwarfing the analytical and interpretative aspects.) In the video version the series of breaking-points has the added layer of a documentary-based milieu, around the man who first speaks directly to camera and later carries on a dialogue with the TV screen, taking no notice of his narrative situation, so that life within the restaurant (of which the Gypsy band is part) carries on in all naturalness. The realism of this naturalistic setting is thus the sole important difference from the inevitably stylised milieu of a concert-hall performance, which can only represent the situation as stage scenery. Szemző does not recast the underlying concept of the performance, therefore, he only “continues” it, relying on the inherent filmic naturalism of the motion picture. The video version thus merely reproduces the original intention: the gesture of transgressing genre boundaries into an aesthetic process, opening of the conscious to the unconscious (or rather non-conscious), the stylisation of the text into music (which becomes so characteristic in the composer’s later  sonic pictures and music pictures), and thus the denial of the possibility of rational interpretation (and interpretability).

Figure 1: “Life within the restaurant… carries on in all naturalness”
(Skullbase Fracture)

The performance nature of the presentation, on the other hand, inevitably falls victim to the needs of documentation. It is clear that by recognising this early on Szemző chose not to make filmed records of stage performances of his works (as opposed to his frequent use of projected motion pictures within staged performances) but instead has used films as way of searching for new language devices for tracking the “skull-base fracture lines”.

Diary Films

Szemző found his distinctive film format in his use of craft devices to create “pictorial music” in his one-person “private films”, or “motion-picture diaries” as he has called them[11] The three short films that he has made to date (CubaThe Other Shore and WhatThere Is) and the feature-length film that develops and elaborates them further (A Guest of Life –Alexander Csoma de Körös) draw on essentially the same devices, and they have a similar impact without however seeming to be self-repeating but much more ever-newer variations on a form that he has hit upon, specific elements or episodes from the author’s endless film. In these short films, starting with Cuba, Szemző makes a definitive break from the by then in any case no longer existing neoavant-garde and steps out onto a fully independent path. At most these works might be seen as with Péter Forgács’s Private Hungary series, the finished form of which owes much to Szemző’s “soundscapes”. The reels of film shot by amateurs that Forgács has tracked down and presents in these films in turn have had a substantial influence on Szemző’s own artistic (and not purely filmic) stance. The randomness of this “home movie” footage, which was recorded either between the two world wars or during the Fifties and Sixties, and the tacit meanings that they also communicate (or which can be read into them) hovers before the eyes like an ideal, approachable but maybe never actually attainable goal. Randomness, unpredictability , “controlled fortuitousness” are also important to Szemző as a musician[12] ; that is, indeed, what attracted him to performance art in the first place. He has pointed out that chance plays an ever greater role than improvisation is his work as a music composer, and it was specifically the private films that he cited to illustrate this: “Maybe the most important aspect is not improvisation so much as chance. In my work chance has a heightened significance, and the analogy with the private films stands in that regard too as it is largely a matter of chance when a film-maker will pick up the camera. Then as to what will be caught on film, that is even more a matter of chance.”[13] The home-movie reels of an amateur enthusiast are not shot with a conscious aim of but with the intention of recording something for posterity; the individual frames may only be able to transmit subconsciously to outsiders psychological states and aims that the film maker himself will not admit even to himself. It is this surreptitious standpoint that can be conjured up from such footage. The process of concealment and the essentially random appearance of a standpoint in the invisible cracks between the actual pictures, the imprint of the fact of documentation (rather than, or alongside, the imprint of facts that are documented), the catching in the act of passing and past time—these are the “meanings” that Szemző endeavours to approach in the “private films” that he shoots.

Before looking at the formal procedures that are used in these films, and having already indicated Szemző’s links to the avant-garde artists associated with the Béla Balázs Studio, it is relevant to draw attention to another, less obvious yet still tenable film parallel. Beside the essentially diaristic nature of private films, the making of a film diary has a far more direct antecedent. With avant-garde film-makers an ever-recurrent need is manifested for total identification with the process of filming, for the direct inscription of personal existence on film, for the dismantling of the boundary between life and art. Following American models, the most tenacious exponent of making film diaries in Hungary was András Szirtes, who film output up from the Eighties until the beginning of the Nineties was likewise associated with the BBS. From the material that he recorded in a continuous mode Szirtes would make a compilation every now and then (his planned ultimate goal of producing a 24-hour film consisting of 48 parts has not yet been realised), and given the lack of a story line, the parts usually use what amounts to a principle of musical composition to achieve their coherence into closed-off inclusions carved out of infinite time. Alongside these diaries Szirtes also made diary-like “travel films” incorporating fictive elements that were shot abroad. Although a case can be made for Szemző’s short films having an affinity to Szirtes’s output, this is much more a matter of their creative stance of treating filming as a “layman” activity, as in terms of their form and concept their respective works are poles apart.

Szemző, in other words, treads a solitary path in artistic terms, when he shoots his “motion-picture diaries” in far-off parts of the world like Cuba and Japan, or in a district of Budapest that has been distanced. In what follows I shall attempt to describe the formal devices he uses to create the indirect meaning carried by private films, and how he captures the invisible time present behind the visible images.

The basic thrust of the films–an intention that is readily comprehensible in a composer–is to achieve the transparent reality of photographic images, to transmute concrete, conceptual meaning into a more sensual, pre- or post-conceptual musical medium, as it were. With his films, Szemző, like Alexander Csoma de Kőrös, is on the road to approaching (not to realising) these goals, thus each film can be considered variations on one theme, in other words we can quickly pass over two obvious devices used to approach these goals. One is the music, which is inseparable from the images and often quotes or uses the motifs of the given musical culture, woven into his own compositions; the other is his dispensing with narrative: Szemző does not tell stories. The other devices are far more elusive, while their use is highly consistent. If I had to characterise them with one word, I would refer to the tension mentioned in the introduction: the tension present between modes of behaviour and motifs in a paradoxical relationship, to the constant passing between them. Almost all the formal elements, and Szemző’s basic film-making stance fit into this equation. I shI shall deal with them one by one.

The images shot in Cuba and Japan, and even Budapest, (perhaps this too is self-evident) capture not the typical postcard picture of distant or near lands, but reveal their elusive everyday faces. Szemző searches for the everyday, the incidental, but for him to see this, he has to move in a foreign environment. If he makes a film, as András Forgách perceptively writes, he “defects into another world”.[14] And if he feels sufficiently at home, if the location is accustomed, everyday (as he remarked during a conversation in Japan) he cannot film.[15] His foreign camera, brought from far away, seeks out the everyday in exotic locations.

From the genre pictures of the everyday derives another type of paradoxical meaning. With these images Szemző avoids conveying direct historical or social information about the chosen countries–whilst in the images the possibility of such a field of meaning is hinted at. The old American cars cropping up as the leading motif of Cuba convey perceptually the country’s peculiar political and economic situation, but beyond this the old forms, with their now shabby, over-luxuriant, ostentatious beauty, awaken the feeling of nostalgia, obviously less shared by those who live there. And from here it is only one step to seeing in Cuba the existing Cuba as a metaphor for past times. All these meanings do not rule one another out; much rather, they interweave, perpetually tumbling into one another, drawing before us the image of time.

“the old forms, with their now shabby, over-luxuriant, ostentatious beauty”

A recurrent element of The Other Shore has a similar effect: the portrait of children dressed in folk costume. In these images the dramatic tension so characteristic of Japanese culture of the split between tradition and modernity is summed up in one single motif, without being defined conceptually at all.

“the dramatic tension of the split between tradition and modernity”
(The Other Shore)

The “deconstruction” of conceptuality is an important device in the films’ use of text. The solution brought to completion in The Guest of Life is already an important element in Cuba and The Other Shore too, and what is more, in a similar role. The foreign-language texts are present not in their conceptuality, they are not narrator’s texts, but integrate into the musical surface as a “musical voice”[16] (and so, logically, do not need to be subtitled). The foreign texts, often barely audibly chanted or mumbled, while possessing their own conceptual meaning, do not reveal this to the majority of recipients; what they do reveal–the musicality of the texts–is, however, beyond conceptuality.

At the level of tension latent in the ‘look and feel’ of the films there is a clearly visible component, and one perhaps less obvious. The former is the characteristically “glimmering” character of the enlarged or electronically transferred visual facture of 8 or 16 mm film:  outlines are blurred, the surface becomes “patchy”, the boundaries of colours and tones become uncertain, and the image sometimes glares. The effect present in the material filmed needs no reinforcing through double exposed images, and masking; indeed the director does not often make use of these typically experimental devices. The images are thus suffused with a kind of transparent floating; as if they had arrived on the screen from distant past times, after a long journey (all this is also the imprint of the experience of the archive private films). We see and recognise the objects, but we also see the intangible glimmer that surrounds them.

The other device used to create the “floating” derives from the typical technical limitations of amateur filmmakers. Normally, amateurs film with small, light handheld cameras. This makes them extremely mobile, but at the same time the images intended to be fixed can be affected by a continuous, fine movement or tremor. From this latter characteristic, Szemző constructs his strict and consistent principle of composition: a considerable proportion of the images are static, which however he shoots with a hand-held camera, so that every single setting is composed of small, uncertain, unexpected movements. These movements then, have no informative function (this would be served by panning or tracking); all the greater is their effect of heightening the tension (static image vs. movement, photo vs. film), which, additionally, comes through purely formal-compositional devices. It is no coincidence that when inThe Guest of Life Szemző releases the camera from his hand, he asks his cameraman István “Taikyo” Szaladják for the kind of images that define the films Cuba and The Other Shore too: “photograph-like images. In other words, the camera should always be handheld, but should not move either in depth or laterally. No zoom, no panning.”[17] Behind (literally) the use of the camera, however, there is another important factor, namely the person shooting the images, the one writing the “motion picture diary”, whose movement and breathing are thus present in the images. In Szemző’s hands the camera becomes an instrument: he has even made a camera-like instrument (8mm-phone). “While I’m filming, I am in effect producing music”, he says, defining his own status as a cameraman.[18]

Film and music–it hardly needs saying–also create tension in his works, and what is more, in the basic structure of the two artistic forms. Szemző has several times said of himself that he is insensitive to harmony. In place of harmony, he hears direction: “depth and height, proximity and distance”.[19] His musical compositions then form temporal structures in space, their notes seem to penetrate space, then gradually withdraw from it. In contrast to all this his films clearly endeavour to depict temporal processes and time itself, without narration, dispensing with concrete, identifiable, spatial dimensions.  It is from this that the films’ static image quality derives, the classic “montage principle” (organising space-time, rhythmic, intellectual), and the sequential ordering of certain settings and motifs.  The glimmering-floating immateriality of the spectacle, the images of “transience” moving on the border between the visible and the invisible, in his films at any rate mark out the temporal dimensions of depth and height, proximity and distance.

Alongside Cuba and The OtherShore the third short film What There Is is apparently built from different elements, since it was shot not in distant lands but in Budapest, furthermore an important role is given in it to text, not used, this time, as a musical element. But as I have already indicated, What There Is is woven from the same fabric as Cuba and The Other Shore, that is to say it is precisely with the differing material of the film that it proves the vigour of the auteur’s perspective and style, penetrating through motifs and themes.

What There Is not only bears the previously outlined characteristic formal traits of the other two short films, but reinforces them with familiar (at least for the Hungarian viewer) visual material and text.  For whether or not we recognise a small quarter of Budapest’s 8thdistrict bounded by a few streets, whether or not we see a series of profane city spaces devoid of any distinction (subways, metros, escalators, public transport hubs), and whether or not we understand the text spoken, the sentences by Géza Ottlik, the same “floating wonderment” defines the images as when we wander with Szemző’s camera in far-off exotic climes. For there too we scrutinised not the foreignness, but the familiar everyday things, with the curious, wondrous look of the visiting alien. Now, in What There Is, the same effect is achieved: we look at these streets and houses (in fact I teach daily in several institutions in that area) as if we had never been there.

“We look at these streets and houses as if we had never been there”
(What There Is)

Through all this–as the true novelty of the film, Géza Ottlik is an important assistant, a guide to Szemző, who here uses Ottlik’s texts not only as a musical line (though also as such), but with their conceptual meaning. Another, though far from trivial issue, that the Ottlik text speaks of the impossibility of the conceptual capturing of the world, when in vain he tries to take stock of his area, and fix his position as an observer.

Ottlik was one of the greatest figures of Hungarian 20th century prose. Szemző found an almost unknown piece of Ottlik’s oeuvre, which is small but all the more concentrated, basically limited to one major piece (Iskola a határon [School on the frontier]. Ottlik, moreover, reads the text himself in the form of radio notes. The film can then be considered a kind of homage, but it is impossible not to notice how closely the writer’s way of seeing things fits with Szemző’s art. The subtitle What There Is could be written for all of his films.

Filming the Present

A Guest of Life, while continuing the diary character of Szemző’s short films, adapts perfectly to the feature-length form. While the short form makes it easy to avoid a narrative logic in ordering the images, in the case of a film of more than one hour, the necessity to tell a story arises with almost binding force. This is not based on some theoretical law, but much rather the convention of film history, a practical issue arising from the routine of expectations of the receivers, or audience. Szemző adapts to this without relinquishing his personal style honed in the short films. A Guest of Life has a main character and a story–so how does the director manage to maintain his earlier way of seeing things?

First and foremost, through the choice of main character. In the person of Alexander Csoma de Körős, Szemző found a historical figure who fits into his artistic world in several respects. Alexander Csoma (1784–1842), the Transylvanian-born scholar, set out on foot in 1819 to research the Hungarians’ Asian ancestors. Although he did not find the Hungarians’ ancestors, he did found the science of Tibetology: between 1827 and 1830, in Kanam, a Tibetan Buddhist monastery in the Himalayas, he compiled the Tibetan-English dictionary and grammar of Tibetan, thus it was through him that the principles of Tibetan Buddhism came into the Western world. After completing this work he remained in Calcutta, pursuing literary studies as a member of the British Asian Society. Then (perhaps still searching for the Hungarians) he set out again, but went only as far as the Indian-Chinese border. He died in the Himalayas at the age of 58. The memory of this scholar, living a legendary withdrawn life, not moving from his cell, but happy to receive visitors, is preserved only in his works: we know almost nothing of his personality. The Transylvanian wanderer, who brought the Bible from home in his travelling trunk, is revered by Buddhists as a bodhisattva, an enlightened one.

Even a short, sketchy biography shows how well Alexander Csoma fits into Szemző’s world as a hero. A mysterious wanderer; as a linguist, a translator and a lexicologist he is a transmitter; and his cell lies high in the Himalayas, like an island above the world. Because of his attraction to the transcendental, the Buddhism which received Csoma is clearly important to Szemző both as a place (Tibet, India) and in spirit. But more important than this is the particular “lack of success” in the scholar’s life, due to which he cannot occupy the place he deserves in general Hungarian esteem. For Csoma does not achieve his goal: he does not find the Hungarians’ Asian relatives–though he does found Tibetology. His scholarly career perfectly exemplifies the possibility of another way, contrasting with goal- and development-based pragmatism; a way which also reaches a goal, but a goal which is always hidden, even from the person working towards it. Approaching Szemző’s compositional principle: Csoma’s career was marked by “directed randomness”. He prepared for something other than what he finally realized, yet few would be capable of completing to such a high standard a task falling in their path against their intentions. He was, perhaps, with his previous training and exceptional linguistic abilities (he knew thirteen languages at the outset of his journey, and learnt another seven during his wanderings) better predestined for linguistic-literary activities, that for seeking out ancestors. The acceptance of the mistaken goal, and his identification with the situation “accidentally” set before him, his acceptance and adapting, the dialectic of the supra-personal and the personal–I believe this to be the more mysterious, hidden part of Alexander Csoma de örös’s life, which makes him such an important figure for Szemző.

And another crucial aspect is that Szemző’s “motion picture diary” is exceptionally well-suited to the presentation of this mysterious “incidental” life, including the locations of Csoma’s activity. But as a result of the material of the new film, Szemző distances from himself the directness, the everydayness, the incidental quality of the diary filming developed in the short films. Aside from the obvious direct technical aspect, a symbolic gesture of this is that he gives the camera to someone else, but–as we have seen–his cameraman expresses for him the same limitations in creating images as Szemző himself does. The consequence of the gesture of retaining/distancing is the transformation of diary filming into “filming of the present”, while the basic status of diary filming remains untouched. (And indeed, the compositions of István “Taikyo” Szaladják often give the impression that the recording were made by Alexander Csoma from the window of his cell, some time in the first half of the 19th century.) Speaking of the images shot in Tibet forA Guest of Life Szemző describes the filming of the present as “that which does not interpret, which does not make posed pictures, but neither does it document–rather it lifts, almost sanctifies even the most everyday moment”.[20]

The Tibetan images of A Guest of Life, then, conjure up the world of Szemző’s earlier short films (incidentally the history of the Csoma film started this way: on an earlier journey to Tibet Szemző, true to form, took some shots, with the intention of the pictures later, years later, as had happened in the case of his early diary films, ordering themselves in a musical form, and becoming a film). In total, the Tibetan pictures amount to no more than the material for a short film, and this too is evidence of the auteur’s sense of proportion. When, however, the plan for a feature-length film arose, he did not try to expand, stretch and thus overburden the “diary film” material, but sought other material to stand beside it. In addition, he had another task as a result of the feature-length form: narrative, i.e. telling a story. Narrative is still alien to the shots conjuring up the world of the short films, not to mention the fact that in Tibet the figure of Csoma has not a story, but much rather a “blank space”–and to show this blank space the story-free, the glimmering and incidental quality approaching on the border between visible and invisible, is the most suitable. With a fine sense, then, Szemző writes the story not on this level, but creates a newer, moreover spectacularly different visual layer: in place of the “documentary pictures” panning the original locations, the “made up” life story of Alexander Csoma is illustrated with animated naïve paintings.

In this layer in the film–new in Szemző’s art–the stylistic unity reminiscent of the musical-image world of earlier works is realised. How else could the unknown, mysterious, non-existent life story of Alexander Csoma appear, if not in the form of legends? László Sári, an intuitive scholar of Tibetan literature and poetry wrote some episodes of the wanderings of Alexander Csoma in the traditional style of the Sekler legends (see the subtitle of A Guest of Life – Alexander Csoma de Körös). Sári’s fairy-tale stylised text is spoken in the naive-wise tone of folk storytellers by the narrator (Mari Törőcsik in the Hungarian version, Susannah York in the English). The texts of the legends are illustrated by naïve-fantastic paintings by painter Gábor Roskó, which animator Károly Kása Papp moves in the manner of fairytale slide films reminiscent of many of our childhoods. The painting film-narrative layer of A Guest of Life is not simply a visual and narrative counterpoint to the Tibetan “diary film”, nor simply a newer variation for the depiction of the “sacred”, the transcendental, the super-reality of ideas, but also fits exactly with the legendary personality of Alexander Csoma. In regard to the work as a whole, it brings an all-encompassing rhythm, a variety, into the work, which is an especially important element of the effect because of the maintaining and conditioning of the attention of the feature film audience.

“It fits exactly to the legendary personality of Alexander Csoma”
(The Guest of Life)

The formal-atmospheric unity of A Guest of Life is, above and beyond this, created by Szemző’s musical composition, of which one of the most important and frequent elements–thanks to the figure of Csoma–also, perfectly naturally, becomes an integral part of the work. Earlier on, I referred to how major a role is given to the use of texts as a “musical voice” in Szemző’s compositions. One way of “making music” of texts is to rid them of their meaning, and at the same time foreground their modality, their melody and rhythms, and the particular character traits of the speaker. The technique of all this is the use of foreign language texts (with no translation or subtitles), and the distortion, covering and overlapping of the speech. Now, in the art of Szemző this is a “meditative” device which opens a gate from the conceptual to the supra-conceptual, and in A Guest of Life finds a direct motivation: for what would be more justifiable in a film of Alexander Csoma, who spoke twenty languages, than multilingualism! Besides the naïve-direct narration accompanying the legendry, we thus hear a newer multilayered narration during the film’s Tibetan pictures, the dominant voice of which is nuggets of Buddhist wisdom, expressing direct meaning but referring to ideas beyond the conceptual, of which the “overtone” is the translation heard of this texts into fourteen languages. The “polilingualism” of Szemző’s films was never so rich–nor ever so justified.

Szemző seeks the sacred not only behind the conceptual language, but also behind concrete images. In connection with short films I have already touched on their formal devices with whose help they at least attempt to give a possibility to something–unexpectedly, unintentionally–appearing in the picture which cannot be created or “done” with any determined artistic intention. In relation to the depiction in film of sacred motions, A Guest of Life has, in my view, a lesson which goes beyond itself, which is generally worth considering for today’s makers of particularly frequent “spiritual film seances”. In conjuring up the sacred, two elements of a work are customarily confused: theme and form. The incorporation of the former into the world of the film does not necessarily lead to the conjuring up of sacredness–a sad example of this is the vast majority of Jesus films. By contrast, through the use of certain stylistic devices even a profane theme can become sacred, as demonstrated by Robert Bresson’s non-sacred theme films. In making A Guest of Life Szemző came face to face with this extremely important artistic experience. Moreover, it happened in this film, since here he was able to shoot in genuinely sacred places, Buddhist monasteries, amongst monks, close to the sky, in the Himalayas. Here he realised the experience he described in an interview: “We have taken vast amounts of pictures, and surprisingly sometimes the most profane moments have become sacred, elsewhere pictures we shot in sacred places seem to be less interesting.”[21]

The imprint of this experience naturally remains in the film, indeed, the most important characteristic of the Tibetan images is the everyday approach to sacred locations and situation, the “downgrading style”, or even–particularly seen with European eyes–profanisation.  The most memorable example of this endeavour is the scene of the lama dance, where in one still image, in an apparently incidental composition, young, cheerful monks spin before us again and again, in an infinite cycle.

“Young, cheerful monks spin before us again and again”
(The Guest of Life)

In this scene the sacred and the profane are present simultaneously, or more precisely, the profanisation of the sacred is taking place. In another sequence however he goes down a much more radically opposite path, in the strict sense of the word.  A few trucks meet on a narrow mountain road. The massive monsters reverse, worm their way round each other, and the gesticulating helpers are dwarfed between them. In the background is the majestic contour of the Himalayas. The sequence has nothing to do with Csoma’s life, or times. But it is precisely the “redundancy”, the “lack of organisation”, in contrast to its doggedness, its length, that expresses some barely describable content relating to man and nature, strength and ineffectiveness, smallness and greatness, all this “composed” to the motif of the road–so that some kind of distant but essential link with Csoma can, after all, be found.

“They reverse, worm their way around each other”
(The Guest of Life)

But this unusual sequence is accompanied by one more essential motion. Instead of his own music, or motifs collected on location, Szemző here uses great sacred music from the European musical culture: the string quartet version of Joseph Haydn’s The Seven Last Words of Christ. This completes the tension of the scene, which feeds on paradoxes.

Such a meeting of spectacle and music also brings to mind the auteur’s synaesthetic artistic position. As one analyst tellingly put it: “The film is conducted by Tibor Szemző.”[22]

[1] László Bihari, “Van-e átjárás Hamvasból a rock’n’rollba? [Is there a path from Béla Hamvas to rock music?, interview],” Magyar Hírlap, 12 August 1998.

[2] See e.g. József Tillmann, “A hangok, amikért tűzbe tudom tenni a kezem [Sounds for which I’d put my arm in a fire, interview],”Magyar Narancs, 18 May 1995.

[3] Attila Ürmös, “Szemző-sziget [ Szemző Island , interview],” Jump Magazin, 1998/1.

[4] Idem.

[5] József Tillmann, “Tropikus trisztessz [Triste tropique],” Élet és Irodalom, 13 August 1999.

[6] András Forgách, “Személyes kozmoszok. Halász, Szemző, Szaladják—háromkirályok [Personal cosmoses: Halász, Szemző, Szaladják—three kings,” Filmvilág, 2006/4.

[7] “Beszélgetés Erdély Miklóssal (1985. 4. 10) [Conversation with Miklós Erdély, 4 October 1985]”, in: Miklós Erdély, A filmről. [About Film], Budapest: Balassi – BAE Tartóshullám – Intermedia, 1995.

[8] “Milarepaverzió. Az ‘új érzékenység’ határai [The Milarepa version: the boundaries of the ‘new sensitivity’ (roundtable discussion)],”Filmvilág, 1985/7.

[9] Erika Ficsor Héty, “Egy ‘végtelen’ dallammal altatja kisfiát [He puts his little boy to sleep with an ‘endless’ tune (interview)],” Hajdú-Bihari Napló, 5 August 1995.

[10] Idem.

[11] He used the term ‘motion-picture diary’ in connection with the film Cuba (see the interview with Erika Ficsor Héty op.cit.)

[12] András Zoltán Kiss & Dávid Tamás Pap, “Hangképek [Soundscapes; interview],”

[13] József Tillmann, “Átitatom magam velük. Beszélgetés Szemző Tiborral filmekről és zenékről [I rewrite myself: Conversation with Tibor Szemző about films and musics],” Jelenkor, 2004/3.

[14] András Forgách: “Szem, szemez, szemző. A filmet szerző zenész. [Eye, ogle, eye-shade/szemző. The musician who writes a film.]”.

[15] Tibor Szemző–Márton B. Balogh: “Összeérés, átjárás. Tokiói beszélgetések. [Meeting, passing through. Tokyo conversations.]”,Balkon, 1998/1.

[16] Tamás Szőnyei: “A megvilágosodott. Beszélgetés Szemző Tiborral. [The Englightened one. Conversation with Tibor Szemző]”,Filmvilág, 2004/7.

[17] Idem.

[18] Tamás Szőnyei: “Sűrített idő. Beszélgetés Szemző Tiborral. [Condensed Time. Conversation with Tibor Szemző]”, Filmvilág, 2001/3.

[19] László Távolodó Marton: “A túlsó part–mintha ébredne a város [The other shore–as if the city awoke]” [interview], Magyar Narancs, 1999/3.

[20] Szilvia Csepécz: “Létszintek. A jelek identitása. [Levels of existence. The identity of signs.]” [interview], Szőrös Kő, 2005/1.

[21] Tímea Hungler: “El a kerek egészig [Up to the round number”] [interview], Magyar Narancs, 1 April 2004.

[22] Zoltán Végső: “Helyére került. [In place.] Élet és Irodalom, 10 December 2004.